BRISTOL - There was no one cause behind the school budget deficits found two years in a row, but a series of causes, according to the auditing firm hired to investigate.
Jeff Ziplow, a partner with BlumShapiro Consulting, presented the executive summary of the audit to the Board of Finance Tuesday night.
There was no fraud or embezzlement involved and “we do not believe that was the cause of the deficits,” Ziplow said.
Last August, the new city comptroller, Diane Waldron, identified a $2.4 million deficit in the 2016-17 school budget, marking the second year the budget was found to be short by a similar amount.
The city hired BlumShapiro to review budgetary and spending practices at City Hall and the Board of Education for 2015-16 and 2016-17.
The summary cited “limited ongoing communications” between the Board of Education, the superintendent, the business office manager and department heads/managers “regarding concerns about budget issues,” as well as “budget deficit warning signs were not aggressively evaluated” as contributing factors.
The school district recently had three different finance directors over one year, and went through a leadership transition when Superintendent Ellen Solek departed on Oct. 31, 2017, eight months before her contract was due to end, and Deputy Superintendent Susan Moreau took over her position.
Other factors cited in the summary were the school board trying to maintain spending levels on special education and the state-mandated minimum budget requirements for education, not properly setting aside payroll funds, and not processing purchase requisitions in a timely fashion.
To avoid similar situations going forward, BlumShapiro had a number of recommendations. These included making financial training available to the school board members.
“Bristol is fortunate to have a dedicated, interested, and engaged Board of Education,” the summary said, recommending the training so the members can “ask more meaningful questions of the district, to better understand the operations and expenses of the school district, and to be able to detect trends/forecast from year to year.”
In addition, the summary recommended school department heads provide regular financial and operational updates to the school board and its finance committee.
The school board should also approve budget transfers over particular dollar amounts; encumber payroll through the city’s MUNIS budget software at the beginning of each fiscal year to avoid “the appearance of having more dollars available than in actuality;” make use of MUNIS’s “Position Control” function to manage hiring, vacancies, and salaries and benefits; and have formal contracts with outside facilities and vendors for services provided to every special education student to better track costs.
The summary further recommended the school board have monthly meetings between the special education and business offices; begin using MUNIS’s Tyler Content Manager function to store all hard copy documents electronically to allow for easier document searching; and generally implement MUNIS refresher training.
In response to a recommendation the district hire a special education accountant to keep track of costs, the summary noted that the district has already hired someone who will start in February.
It also noted that in response to a recommendation that the city and school board implement a solution to ensure emails are properly archived and available when necessary, the city has now budgeted for such a system.
Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu said the city and school board will be instituting all the recommendations.
Moreau said the school board has implemented many of the recommendations and are working closely with the city.